Remarks of Dr. Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana to the National Association for Bilingual Education

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Thank you for inviting me to address this group of valued colleagues and champions—it is wonderful to be here among so many people committed to guaranteeing an excellent education for every child in America.

And, congratulations to NABE on this important milestone! For going on 40 years, your leadership has ranged from providing professional development for educators, to conducting grassroots advocacy for English language learners, to serving as a national voice for educational achievement and equity.

You represent more than 20,000 members and speak for millions of students. I know because I too, as a teacher and administrator, was a member of NABE. I know personally how hard all of you are working on behalf of America's growing community of bilingual, multilingual and English language learners, as well as the families, educators and advocates that support them.

I understand firsthand your challenges, your dedication, and the great good you are doing. In my home district of Pomona, just over 40% of our students are English Learners, and an additional 24% are Fluent-English-Proficient. I, too, am a bilingual learner, and I assure you that I am bringing all of this experience to my role in Washington.

Last year, I left the Superintendent's office determined to help represent the local school district perspective in the groundbreaking efforts that are now taking place at the U.S. Department of Education, and across the country.

Today, I want to speak about your work within the context of this powerful drive for education reform in the United States.

As a nation, we have made great strides. But we have yet to realize the goal of equal educational opportunity in America. As the President reminded us last Wednesday night, "In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education."

No matter their race, creed, zip code, or first language, every child in this nation is entitled to a quality public education. It's the one and only way to place the promise of the American dream within reach of everyone.

I feel blessed to have had a career serving children in public education. In each position I've held—whether as a teacher, principal, superintendent, or now, as an Assistant Secretary—my guiding principle has been the same. I am focused on what will improve teaching and learning to help ensure the success of all our children. For me this is more than a moral argument, or a sound professional philosophy—it is rooted in the events of my own life.

I went to kindergarten at Fremont Elementary School in Montebello, California—right near Los Angeles. I am the daughter of Mexican immigrants, and we spoke Spanish, my first language, at home. I remember my first day of school wasn't easy. It was difficult to communicate with my classmates and my teacher.

But one teacher, Mrs. Silverman, didn't see this as a problem. She saw it is an opportunity. She took it upon herself to find a way to teach me.

Mrs. Silverman always made sure I knew what was happening in class, giving me attention and encouragement whenever I needed extra help.

From that first day, Mrs. Silverman believed that I could succeed and took steps to make sure I did.

So I know what it means to benefit from high expectations. But I also know how hard it is overcome low expectations.

When I was in high school, I went to meet with my guidance counselor. I asked her if she thought I should apply to UCLA. "No way. Absolutely not," she said.

She had not even looked at the file on her desk with my SAT scores and grades. All she knew about me was my last name. She assumed I community college was perfect for me. Now two year schools are fine places, but that was not my dream. My dream was to attend UCLA.

Consequently, it would take me longer to get there. I began at a Cal State school. But there, once again I was fortunate to have a teacher who had high expectations of me.

One day, after a long test, I visited my political science professor. He taught at both the Cal State and at UCLA. So I repeated the question I posed 2 years earlier: Could I make it at UCLA?

His answer was as quick and as definitive as my guidance counselor's—except shorter. "Absolutely," he said.

And he was right. UCLA accepted me based on the same high school grades and college admissions scores that sat unopened on my guidance counselor's desk.

I did graduate from UCLA, and went on to earn my doctorate at USC.

Experience has taught me that education equalizes differences in background, culture and privilege, and gives every child a fair chance.

My story speaks to the importance of high expectations, great teaching, and access to and success in higher education. My story also speaks to the dangers of low expectations, uninspired teaching, and inequitable access—especially for historically underserved groups.

Sadly, the dangers in my story are the reality of too many of our school children today. Where I was able to rise, today, too many don't. I am honored and passionate about working on their behalf, and helping to ensure their success. It's the best way I know of to repay Mrs. Silverman and all the others like her who helped me, and to carry on the noblest traditions of the teaching profession. It's also, quite simply, the right thing to do.

Both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan believe that access to a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. I know that's a conviction shared by everyone in this room.

This administration's commitment to delivering a quality education for every student could not be a clearer or higher priority—as you heard in the State of the Union address, and as you see in the President's 2011 budget proposal.

We're setting our sights on preparing all Americans to compete in the global economy, and to succeed in the challenging and fulfilling jobs of the 21st century. We are placing our bets for the future on education, because we know that education—more than anything else—is the foundation for continued prosperity.

A few statistics show the challenges we're facing:

  • Today, 27% of America's young people drop out of high school. Almost half of our Latino and African-American students drop out of high school. And too often, not enough is done to prepare those who stay in school for college, career and engaged citizenship.
  • For years, roughly 5,000 schools in the country have failed to meet expectations. This includes some 2,000 high schools that produce about half of our nation's dropouts, and three-quarters of our minority dropouts.
  • We know that, by 2016, just seven years from now, four out of every 10 new jobs will require some advanced education or training. Thirty of the fastest growing fields will require a minimum of a bachelor's degree.
  • Yet today, just 40% of our young people earn a two-year or four-year college degree. And, enrollment rates are unequal: studies show that 61% of qualified white high school graduates enter 4-year colleges, compared to just 44% of similarly qualified Latino graduates, and 29% of similarly qualified African American graduates.
  • A generation ago, our educational system was the envy of the world. Today, we are slipping behind. The US now ranks 10th in the world in the rate of college completion for 25- to 34-year-olds. The global achievement gap is growing.

Change is needed, both to ensure our children's success and to maintain our standing in the world. Now, let's also take a closer look at America's English learners, and why their success is so crucial to the success of our nation.

  • Approximately one in ten students in the United States is an English learner. And of course, that percentage is dramatically higher in states like Texas or my home state of California.
  • English learners are our fastest-growing student population. This group is also one of our most diverse. There's a huge misconception that English learners are all immigrant students. In fact, over 78% of ELLs are U.S. born.
  • We also tend to think about English learners as new to the classroom, or as starting out in the very early grade levels. But this is not the case. Rather, between 68% and 80% of English Learners in California and Texas are considered long-term English learners. In places like Los Angeles, it's definitely more like 80%. Growth among secondary ELLs is 64%, compared to 46% growth at the elementary school level.
  • These students are also very diverse with over 400 languages spoken by ELLs. Diversity in background also include students with interrupted formal education.

So, yes, we must transform our schools, and dramatically improve teaching and learning for all of our students. But at the same time, we must find and implement those specific strategies that are proving effective for the wide variety of needs and abilities represented by our English language learners.

The President and the Secretary are acting decisively to meet these challenges. I'm proud to be a member of their team. President Obama has set two clear goals for all of us to focus on.

First, by 2020, America will again have the most competitive workforce in the world, with the highest proportion of college graduates of any country.

Second, we will close the achievement gap, so that all students—whatever their family income, wherever they grow up, whatever the color of their skin, and whichever language or languages they speak at home—all students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and careers.

The President's goals are the driving force behind the administration's vision for "cradle-to-career" reform. America's education pipeline must begin with strong services for our youngest learners, transition them seamlessly through an effective elementary and secondary system, and culminate at the college and career end of the spectrum in a host of high-quality, affordable options for postsecondary education and workforce skills training.

To help us achieve this, Secretary Duncan has outlined four major areas where American education falls short—four obstacles to meeting those 2020 goals—as well as the broad solutions that will direct our investments and efforts where they can have the greatest impact.

Let's look at each one of these reform areas, and discuss how each relates to English language or bilingual learners.

As leaders, we all know the importance of high expectations on the performance of students in our districts and schools. Our public school students need the same high bar set before them. If our students aren't being prepared for success when they graduate, we owe it to them to raise our standards. So the first area for reform is to set standards and assessments that truly prepare students for college and career success.

And, with regard to English language learners, we must encourage states in developing ELP standards and assessment that prepare ELLs to succeed. That means linking ELP assessments and standards with ELA standards in order to obtain real information about their progress and achievement.

Second, we know that teacher talent is probably the single most important factor in the success or failure of our students. In fact, research shows that if minority students learn from an excellent teacher for three consecutive years, we could eliminate the achievement gap. But great teachers don't exist in a vacuum. Effective leaders attract and cultivate effective teachers, and great leaders are a catalyst for school growth. So we must find ways to recruit, train, and reward outstanding teachers—and leaders.

Our teachers and school leaders need to know how to help English learners develop academic skills and language proficiency. They need to ensure that these students have meaningful access to the proper grade-level content—while at the same time providing all the necessary and appropriate supports.

Similarly, in order to build teacher and principal leadership in regard to English language learners, we must focus on capacity-building and professional development. Teachers and school leaders need assistance with the assessments and instructional models that work best for such learners, and they need to understand the diversity within the English language learner population so that they can truly tailor instruction to specific needs and strengths.

Experts in this field have also called for better tools to show how socioeconomic status, literacy levels in the first and second language, and developmental differences may also affect learning among this wide array of students.

Now, the third major reform area is the need to collect data to track students' progress, identify the teachers having the biggest impact on achievement, and even link teachers back to their schools of education. Our data systems must do this carefully for all children, so that we learn how to best develop teachers and prepare students for success.

Data collection structures are also an important challenge for people doing research and working with English learners. Experts are urging that we monitor accountability requirements more efficiently and more meaningfully within the ELLs subgroups, in order to ensure effective services and chart progress for these students. We need an accountability system that measures and records how individual students are progressing throughout their entire careers—among other reasons, so that we can follow former English learners who have been reclassified, but who may still need targeted support. Otherwise, once they've been reclassified, there's a risk that these students may become invisible, and even that their learning may plateau or regress.

We must be aware of their status and their needs, and offer the types of assistance that will ensure continued gains in academics and language fluency.

Finally, moving on to the fourth reform area, we need to turn around our lowest performing schools. We need to transform "dropout factories" into vibrant learning communities where our children's great potential is realized.

We also need to target investments for services to English learners if schools are to hire appropriately trained teachers, implement research-based curricula, and support these students as they gain proficiency in English and achieve high academic standards. We can do much to improve our schools and reduce the drop-out rate by making sure that all of our districts incorporate the best approaches for serving our bilingual students.

Targeting these four key areas—both in general and as they apply to English language learners—will help concentrate our energy, policies and investments on the areas where improvements are most needed. It will also help move the U.S. Department of Education away from its traditional role as a compliance monitor, toward a new role as an engine of innovation—recognizing success and scaling up best practices.

The speed and the scope of the Department's actions in the past year should tell you something about how seriously we take this charge. More importantly, at the state and local level, we've seen hundreds of thousands of jobs saved, new policies created, creative approaches adopted, legal barriers to reform cleared away. Let me stress how impressed I am with those I work with at the Department of Education, but especially with the countless Americans I've had the privilege of meeting in my role as Assistant Secretary.

The President believes that education is the way to secure our country's economic future. He's investing heavily in college access, K-12 reform, and early learning.

His fiscal 2011 budget includes proposals that address the needs of students of all ages and at all educational levels—including English language learners.

It includes $156 billion for student aid—enough to provide federal assistance for 3 out of every 5 students enrolled in higher education. This includes increasing the size of Pell Grants—which are an economic lifeline to so many students who are struggling to pay for college. It also includes efforts to make it easier for graduates to repay their student loans through the income-based repayment program. The budget reduces the percentage of their income they are required to pay and shortens the number of years they need to make payments. After 20 years of reduced payments, borrowers' debts will be forgiven.

In K-12 education, the budget includes a $4 billion increase. Much of this increase will go to several new funds addressing key areas:

  • Producing excellent teachers and leaders,
  • Creating new funds to ensure students receive a well-rounded education—addressing literacy, science and mathematics, as well as history, the arts, civics, and other elements of a rich curriculum.
  • Starting a new fund that encourages integrated services for students.

The budget also expands the president's commitment to driving reform by adding $1.35 billion to the Race to the Top fund and $500 million to the Investing in Innovation Fund—and making both of those competitive funds permanent.

And, this budget requests $800 million for the English Learning Education program. Our goals for this program include:

  • English language proficiency to ensure opportunity for academic success;
  • Proficiency in content to ensure full range of academic options; and
  • Encourage bi-literacy to strengthen our global competitiveness.

The president has also promised to request an extra $1 billion for K-12 education, provided that Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We have a tremendous opportunity to further our reform goals by reauthorizing the ESEA. At the Department of Education we are working hard to incorporate the best lessons and ideas from the field into a proposal that we will soon share with lawmakers.

To this end, last year, in an eight-month ESEA Listening and Learning Tour, Secretary Duncan and his senior staff traveled to all 50 states, and hundreds of schools. We heard from thousands of students, parents and educators about the strengths and weakness of the current law. They suggested changes and new directions aimed at dramatically improving teaching and learning in this country.

We all learned so much from these discussions, and I was always impressed by the insight, care and dedication of the participants. Experience has taught me that education equalizes differences in background, culture and privilege, and gives every child a fair chance—and it was evident from the tour that Americans everywhere share this common belief in education as our economic salvation. ESEA dates back to 1965 and it has undergone a lot of changes over the years, but few have been as dramatic and controversial as the 2002 version known as No Child Left Behind.

Most give credit to NCLB for using student outcomes as measure of success. NCLB helped expand the accountability movement. The law helped expose the achievement gap, by requiring test score reporting on each subgroup of students.

From my vantage point as a former superintendent, this was a needed and meaningful change. We were able to identify and track the progress of those students who needed the most support, and could better hold ourselves accountable. I saw schools change their behavior and respond more urgently to the needs of all their students. We will always want schools to gauge their impact by the success of all—rather than just some—of their students.

But, we must be sure that our assessments fully measure what our children need to know in order to succeed. We must develop better ways to gauge the breadth and depth of our students' knowledge.

I'm also concerned that our present state standards communicate far too varied expectations, and yield inconsistent student learning, growth and achievement.

We now have 48 states who have signed on to clearer, fewer and higher college and career-ready standards. With the upcoming $350 million dollar set-aside from Race to Top dedicated to developing assessments aligned to these standards, we have the potential to make a real break-through. We know we need assessments that better measure the breadth and depth of our student's knowledge, especially for our second language users and other diverse learners.

To my mind, NCLB's accountability was unfair. It put too much emphasis on testing and did not provide enough money to help struggling schools. It unfairly labeled schools when they fell short, and then told them what to do when they missed AYP, regardless of whether they missed the goals by a little, or a lot.

As a superintendent, it was dispiriting to watch schools apply the same interventions, especially when the circumstances did not fully warrant it. A new ESEA can also do more to reward schools that take the right steps to improve.

In all, we envision an ESEA that is tight on goals and loose on how to achieve them. Greater flexibility, further supports and incentives, better assessments and higher standards—these are the principles that we see forming the core of a new ESEA.

Now, what are the specific ways we see this new ESEA responding to the needs of English language learners? Let me share our policy thinking with you, and I think you'll hear how clearly these priorities align with both the research on what's effective and what's needed for these populations, and with the four reforms outlined by the Secretary.

We need to fund innovative approaches, evaluate promising practices, and take proven models to scale, so they are available to more students. Moving forward, the following beliefs guide our thinking.

First, we want to ensure that ESEA includes more specific and more rigorous standards for English Language learners. Our ELs must have access to content continuously, throughout their educational career

Second, we won't back down on accountability—In fact we want to do one better. We want our schools to have the tools to recognize the diversity of their EL populations and better differentiate their support of these students. We want our assessments and performance requirements to bring ELs into the mainstream accountability system—ensuring that their progress, needs and achievements are explicitly measured.

Third, we need to more clearly define and raise the qualifications of those who teach English learners, and then to design the systems that will track their effectiveness. Teachers, Paraprofessionals, Principals, and Administrators must be better skilled at teaching and supporting ELs.

Fourth, we need to focus on data—not just data about the EL population, but to disaggregate data within the EL population, to truly capture the diversity of this group and to assess, for example, the needs of older vs. younger students, and investigate the acquisition of content knowledge as well as language development.

Fifth, we need to invest in innovation and best practices. Again, the great diversity of English learners requires a range of instructional arrangements and supports. We need to help states and districts develop more specific and nuanced instructional approaches for these students. In particular we want to encourage dual language programs. The cognitive benefits are clear, and they can help prepare our students for future success in globally competitive world.

During our listening and learning sessions on ESEA and diverse learners, I heard the point made that English language acquisition takes time, and that it must be developed in the context of age-appropriate content. But we don't tend to teach it that way—like my very own first grade teacher, who had me recite the alphabet again and again on the grounds that by doing so, I was learning English, and learning to read! What our schools often try to do is to address English acquisition needs first and then build in content areas. We need models that will move us away from such practices and toward more successful ones.

In our new version of ESEA, we want to ensure that we are holding America's diverse learners to high standards, while providing them with the opportunities and supports they need to be successful.

I can recall a young girl—a new American—who came to this country and to my district without English language skills. Yet by the time she graduated from high school, she was her school's valedictorian and had been accepted at UCLA.

Above all, a new ESEA must encourage this type of work and increase this type of outcome. It must encourage great teaching and learning in our classrooms, and encourage greater progress for our diverse learners—so that they all have educational careers like hers. Secretary Duncan has called on us all to build an education law that is worthy of our country—a law that future generations can point to as the moment when Americans came together and laid the foundation for a new era of innovation, growth and prosperity.

That's what's at stake with the reauthorization of ESEA, and I want to thank you in advance for doing all you can to help make the most of this vital opportunity.

I hope I've shared with you my sense of urgency, but also my confidence that now truly is the time for us to join together and achieve significant and lasting improvements for our English learners and bilingual students. I believe we can accomplish this, not only because we recognize that it is just and right to do for them, but because we realize that it will be good for our nation.

In most countries, bilingualism or multilingualism is the norm—it is just expected. It is built into the school system and is a life-long process. This continuous language learning model is something America needs to explore.

No doubt many of you have heard the saying, "El que habla dos lenguas vale por dos"—roughly translated, that means, a person who speaks two languages counts as two people. To me, it suggests that someone who has mastered two languages is able to serve as an interpreter, a reconciler, and a mediator between the rich cultures, values and traditions that those languages represent. Such people are especially needed today. With deep roots in more than one world, they can form living bridges between individuals and communities.

Long before being elected President, then-Senator Obama spoke in favor of nurturing new generations of Americans who are fluent in multiple languages. He said, "We should have every child speaking more than one language."

More and more of our children must do this, if our nation is to continue to lead in the global economy; if we are going to help bring security and stability to the world; and if we are going to foster understanding and build ever-stronger and more productive ties with our neighbors. Your work is vital to this effort.

And at precisely the moment when the ESEA faces its most crucial overhaul ever, and when education is receiving its biggest investments ever, this President and this Secretary of Education chose a Latina superintendent from a predominantly Latino, low-income, and EL district to be Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education.

I think that sends a powerful message. And I promise you, I take the responsibility that accompanies this honor to heart. So, I ask for your support—now and in the future. Together we can build an outstanding American education system for the 21st century. We can bring about the change that our children and our communities deserve.

And as the late Cesar Chavez stated, "We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens this community and this nation."

Thank you, and now I'll be glad to take your questions.